LOCAL GODS - ALEC CIZAK
You may not be familiar with the name Joshua Beckett. If you live in Los Angeles, though, you’ve bought food from him. That’s right, Josh’s supermarkets. The big red ovals with his name in fancy white letters litter the landscape.
Joshua started his business back in 1979. He bought a small space on Fairfax, just south of Wilshire, and began selling fruits and vegetables to the Hollywood royalty that passed through on their way to better neighborhoods. That was the most he chose to remember about his chain’s origin. Then he got a call from Butch Keats.
He didn’t recognize the voice at first. Cautiously, he answered, “Who’s this?”
The silence that followed was accompanied by what felt like a tremendous weight dropped right down on his shoulders. Try as he might, he could not shake the fact that he knew exactly why Butch was calling.
“Joshua, you there, buddy?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Like to see you today.”
Joshua looked at the watch on his hand, as though that might offer an excuse. He was now staring down the barrel of seventy and had no desire to get involved with Los Angeles’s last, stubborn Irish-American gangster.
“I, ah, you know, I gotta business to run, Butch.”
“You sure do! Seeing as how there’s a Josh’s on every damn corner I’d say you’re doing a hell of a job, yes?”
“I’ve been lucky.”
“Hope you haven’t forgotten how your little store took off.”
Joshua sighed. He said nothing. He didn’t have to.
“Let’s meet at Nick’s, just up the street from the old neighborhood. Say, noon?”
After a pause, Joshua let out another breeze of displeasure, then agreed. “Sure, Butch, I’ll be there.”
They said goodbye to each other and hung up.
The unpleasant truth was that Butch had done him a favor back in 1970 when Mickey Poole opened a grocery mart directly across the street from the first Josh’s. His prices were lower and the products he sold were better. He would surely have buried Joshua if Butch hadn’t agreed to chase him away. The price for the favor was a returned gesture of equal or greater proportion, requested at Butch’s leisure.
As Joshua got ready for the meeting he cursed a lot of things, mostly Butch and his decision to wait thirty years to settle the bill. He put on his coat and hat, took an umbrella in case of a random L.A. rain, and drove south, towards Wilshire and Fairfax.
Butch was sitting in the booth closest to the back door of Nick’s Diner. He had occupied that spot for as long as Joshua could remember. It was the same place they had made their deal thirty years earlier. Despite being much older than him, Butch looked at least ten years younger. Maybe it was plastic surgery. Maybe life in the crooked lane was more exciting and that in turn kept the tell-tale signs of age at a distance.
When Joshua entered, Butch got to his feet and opened his arms. “My friend, how the hell are you?”
Joshua refused the hug, offered a handshake instead. Butch accepted and they sat down.
Two younger thugs stood near them. Butch told them to get lost. They nodded like obedient servants and walked to the front of the diner to sit down.
Aside from the sole waitress working the joint and a cook in the back so bored he spent the majority of his time smoking cigarettes and playing an old Pac-Man video game in a corner by the door, there was no one else in the place.
“You know why I called, yes?”
Joshua looked down at the table. “Butch, that was thirty years ago. I, I don’t have it in me to do the kind of job you have in mind.”
Butch laughed. “Ye who have no stinkin’ faith! I just need a quick favor, that’s all. It’ll take you this afternoon and the slate’ll be clean, yes?”
“But Butch,” Joshua brought his wide, protesting eyes up to help plead his case, “thirty years!”
Butch lowered his voice to a deep, threatening gravel. “Now you listen to me, bubba. You promised me you’d be there any time I needed you, yes?”
“I figured, you know, within the next few years.”
“I didn’t need you then.”
Joshua sat back. “Do you know how badly the police grilled me after the fire?”
Butch shrugged. “I told you there’d be some pressure from the cops. Your competition’s establishment burned to the ground under fishy circumstances, yeah, the pigs are gonna poke their snouts towards the closest logical culprit.”
“It was hell. They questioned me and, God rest her soul, my first wife Angela.”
Another shrug. “You knew there’d be some turbulence when you asked me to eighty-six Mickey Poole.”
Joshua looked around. The thugs by the door wouldn’t let him leave. He was certain there would be one or two more in the back. Then he reminded himself, You’re sixty-eight years old! How the hell are you gonna run anywhere without having a heart attack?
“Alright,” he said, “what do you want me to do?”
Butch slid a set of keys across the table. He motioned with a nod of his head towards the parking lot outside. “See that hatchback pile of crap?”
Joshua sat up straight and looked out the window. “Yeah.”
“Drive it over to Herm Weiss’s junkyard in Chatsworth. I’ll give you money to take a cab back here.”
“That’s it?” Before he finished asking, he knew that was the wrong question.
Joshua picked up the keys and looked at them. “What’s in it?”
“An engine, radio, air conditioning.”
“That’s not what I mean.” He ran it through his head--why would Butch need to get rid of a car? Then it hit him:
Bill Brooks, a killer often hired by Butch to bump off enemies and their friends, was on trial in downtown L.A. He had been brought in before and brushed off the charges as though they were the mildest nuisance. However, now the state had a witness. An insurance salesman named Enrique Paz had seen Bill running from an apartment complex that later produced the bullet-filled bodies of two ‘gang-bangers’ who had made the mistake of beating and raping one of Butch’s nieces.
“Don’t tell me,” Joshua said, putting his hand up to stop whatever explanation Butch might have had, “the car belongs to the Salvadoran guy who’s testifying at Bill Brooks’ trial.” He sat back, exceptionally proud of himself, and let the keys drop to the table. “No way,” he concluded.
Butch grinned. “You mean Enrique Paz, yes?”
“Enrique testified already. What good would killing him do me now?”
“I don’t buy it, Butch.”
“You want to take a look in the trunk, no?”
Butch grabbed Joshua's hand and forced the keys into it. “Stop being so paranoid. Drive the damn car to Chatsworth.” He took out a fold of money and slid it across the table. “There’s three hundred dollars. The cab ride probably won’t cost that much. You keep the rest, yes?” He snapped his fingers and motioned for Joshua to hit the road.
The young goons from the front walked over to assist him out of the booth and, if needed, out of the diner.
Joshua put the money in his pocket and exited on his own.
On the way to the car, he turned over several ideas. Maybe, he thought, I can hire someone else to drive it for me. Then he decided if any trouble did come down, it would get right back to him. If he was going to absorb a scandal it would be best to involve as few people as possible.
As he rounded the back of the car, he slowed down. Fighting the urge to look in the trunk, he convinced himself that it appeared entirely too small to hold a corpse. That was enough assurance to get him into the driver’s seat and on the road.
He pulled onto Fairfax and headed south for the freeway. He obeyed every traffic rule. Along the way he noticed, one after the other, how many Josh’s there were between Wilshire and the freeway.
He got on the highway and stayed in the slow lane, barely hitting 55 at any time. Cars raced around him, the drivers occasionally showing him an upright middle finger accompanied by an angry honk or two. From high above the city he could see the red signs across the skyline. Josh’s, in big, white, flamboyant letters. No wonder his last two wives had accused him of being self-centered and egotistical.
“Maybe I deserve to be punished,” he said to himself, “maybe God is trying to knock me down a bit.”
He got off the freeway and drove through Chatsworth to the junkyard on the far end of the city. While sitting at a stoplight, the thought of getting caught became his overriding concern once more. Traffic moved. He did not.
A local police car rolled up next to him. When the woman officer saw that it was an old man driving, she eased her tone of voice and said, politely, “Sir, are you alright?”
Joshua looked over, realized he was on the verge of an unwanted interview with the law. “Yes, yes. Thank you. Just daydreaming, that’s all.”
The officer smiled, then realized who she was talking to--“You’re Josh, right, from the television, right?” Her demeanor suggested she had run into a celebrity, possibly even royalty.
Josh cursed the commercials he had made for years in which he saw to it that his face, more so than the product he sold, was the focal point. He relented, nodded, “Yes, I’m Josh.”
“Oh my God,” the young woman said, “whoever makes the chicken at 3rd and Vermont is the best. I only buy chicken from that store.”
“I think Sonia Chavez is the cook there. She is quite good.”
Cars began to line up. The officer noticed and waved politely to the drivers behind her. “You sure you’re OK?”
Joshua nodded eagerly, “Much better now.”
The squad car turned left onto the cross street. Joshua headed straight.
Weiss’s Scrap Mart was a massive operation sitting before a mountain that rose high enough into the sky to have snow at the top year-round. The rows of beat up cars and organized parts clashed with the natural beauty.
When Joshua pulled into the front lot, Herman Weiss himself walked out of the main office to greet him. He was smoking a thin, brown cigarette and coughing and wheezing every time he tried to grab a clean breath of air.
Joshua put the car in park and got out.
“Mr. Beckett?” Herman stretched his free hand, “Herman Weiss. Mr. Keats has arranged everything.” He snapped his fingers at a worker in a blue jumpsuit. “Donny, take this back to the compactor.”
“That’s it?” Joshua asked.
“You’re gonna turn this into a cube?”
“That’s right. Mr. Keats’ orders.”
The kid in the jumpsuit drove the car into the labyrinth of metal beyond the front gates. Joshua watched the car pull away and became worried all over again.
“Mr. Weiss,” he struggled to speak, “w-what’s in the trunk?”
“Don’t ask.” Herman dragged his cigarette, hacked up more of his insides. “Let me call you that cab.”
In the distance, the sound of the car being scrunched into a hefty square of metal nudged itself into Joshua’s ears and his conscience. Piercing shrieks of iron and plastic bending and twisting filled the air. Underneath all the superficial sounds, Joshua was certain he heard the horrific cries of a man screaming for his life.
He convinced himself it was only his imagination.
Five minutes later the taxi arrived.
The cabbie barely spoke English. Neither he nor Joshua felt obliged to make small talk. Joshua sat back and listened to the radio. The broadcast was in Russian, an AM station that played Russian pop songs and broke every seven minutes for commercials.
At least, that’s what Joshua figured they were.
What he didn’t realize was a particularly long break between songs included a news report on the Bill Brooks’ trial. Had he been familiar with Russian, he would have understood that the verdict in the case could not be read until the foreman of the jury was found. He had been missing, according to police, for at least a day and a half. He was last seen driving away from the court to his apartment.
The cab ride became so serene that Joshua nearly fell asleep. He nodded off and came back to several times before the taxi rolled in to the parking lot of Nick’s.
Joshua paid the fare and tipped the cabbie generously. When he got out, Butch was waiting for him.
“That wasn’t so tough, now, was it?” He gave him a hefty slap on the back. Without being obvious, he led him to his car.
“Butch,” Joshua said, “I don’t have anything to worry about, do I?”
The old gangster thought about it, then replied, “Mere mortals can’t touch you.”
BIO: Alec Cizak is a writer from Indianapolis.
Saturday Night Music: Peter Gabriel
6 hours ago